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Is Paranoia in American Politics Diagnosable?

Posted on | May 26, 2021 | No Comments

Mike Magee

“The Presidency should not be used as a platform for proving one’s manhood ..”

“Inwardly he is a frightened person who sees himself as weak and threatened by strong virile power around him . . .”

 “Since his nomination I find myself increasingly thinking of the early 1930s…”

 “Unconsciously he seems to want to destroy himself.  He has a good start, for he has already destroyed the Republican party . . .”

At first glance, the remarks above appear to have been made about Donald Trump. In fact, they are part of written survey responses to a September, 1964, Fact Magazine survey sent to 12,300 psychiatrists asking, “Do you believe that Barry Goldwater is psychologically fit to serve as President of the United States?” Of the 2400 responses, half replied “No.”

That was a bridge too far for the American Psychiatric Association, which in 1973 adopted Section 7.3 in their Ethics Rules which states, “[I]t is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement”

That rule held until Donald Trump descended his Trump Tower spiral staircase in 2016. As he approached a possible second term, the nation’s mental health professionals were in full revolt. For example, the June, 2018 article appearing in The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law was titled “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President.”

In the age of Marjorie Greene, mass paranoia and open insurrection, we Americans may be excused if it appears that our national experiment in self-governance is coming apart at the seams. It is also natural to give way to the notion that what we are experiencing is uniquely different, and therefore poses a greater risk than we’ve encountered in the past.

Under such moments of self-inflicted crises of conscience, history often comes to the rescue. Let me introduce you to a young boy, born in Chowan County, North Carolina, in 1899. Raised by devout Baptists, and homeschooled by his mother until age 10, when he entered high school.

He was self-described in later years as “a gifted child”, a rabid and early anti-communist, and an “insufferable” advocate of Christian conversion. He was also a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and Harvard Law School.

You may not have ever heard of him, but certainly know him by his products if you were a child of the ‘50’s or 60’s. He created Sugar Daddies, Sugar Babies, Junior Mints and Pom Poms. He also created the John Birch Society.

When he took early retirement at the age of 50, Robert W. Welch, Jr. was already a wealthy man. He could well afford to focus on rescuing the souls of Americans for whom he apparently held deep contempt, describing them as ignorant and ill-informed, and therefore in danger of being converted by communists who he found hidden in every crack and around every corner.

His earliest foray into electoral politics, a run for Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts in 1950, ended poorly. But it did allow him to get close to the 1952 Republican candidate for President, Robert A. Taft, the champion of “Fortress America” and smearer of internationalism in the form of NATO and the United Nations.

Taft of course lost. But in the wings, Welch embraced another like-minded cold warrior, Senator Joe McCarthy, who was running for re-election in Wisconsin, who happily agreed to accept donations from the retired candy striper. McCarthy of course went down in ashes.

But Welch more than picked up the mantle when McCarthy succumbed to alcohol and opioid addiction on May 2, 1957. One year later, he convened a group of like-minded conspiracists for a two-day session in Indianapolis, Indiana. On the agenda was a discussion of the life of one relatively unknown World War II soldier who had been the subject of Welch’s first book in 1954, a biography of the “first casualty of World War III.” The book’s title was The Life of John Birch.

Welch shared a common passage with Birch. Beyond their military experience, both grew up in the deep “Jim Crow” south (Welch in North Carolina, Birch in Georgia), both intellectually gifted, both products of missionary oriented Baptist parents, and early radicalized with equal measures of paranoia and hyperbole. A classmate at Mercer University, an affiliate of Georgia Baptist, later recalled that “He was always an angry young man, always a zealot, felt he was called to defend the faith, and he alone knew what it was.”

What made Birch Welch’s hero however was that he died at the hands of Chinese Communists in Xuzhou, Jiangsu, China, as a member of the Army’s fledgling intelligence service on August 25, 1945, seven days before Japan officially surrendered. Jimmy Doolittle, US ARMY WWII pilot extraordinaire, said of this man others made a hero posthumously, “I feel sure he would not have approved.” While Birch may have preferred to remain anonymous, Welch chose to elevate him. By 1960, Birch was the face of a hard-right, anti-communist organization with a staff of 28, and approaching 100,000 members.

Members kept busy writing letters of protest. For example, when supporters of the U.N. created a four part documentary television series celebrating the United Nations, Xerox, their primary sponsor, received 51,279 letters of protest from John Birch Society members. The Society’s president at the time said “We hate to see a corporation of this country promote the U.N. when we know that it is an instrument of the Soviet Communist conspiracy.” They also actively opposed the civil rights movement, and lined up to help secure the candidacy of Barry Goldwater for President in 1964.

Columbia University’s Pulitzer Prize Winning Professor of History,Richard Hofstadter, labeled the unique political approach of Welch, and Goldwater, and all the rest leading up to Trump as “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” As he wrote in 1964, “I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”

In fleshing out his theory, Hofstadter recounts a 1951 speech by McCarthy in which he states, “This must be the product of a great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that, which it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men.”

Later in the article, Hofstadler comes eerily close to defining our current predicament with this: “Perhaps the central situation conducive to the diffusion of the paranoid tendency is a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise. The situation becomes worse when the representatives of a particular social interest—perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands—are shut out of the political process. Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed.”

Finally, there are these words, which certainly must resonate with the many psychiatrists who felt compelled to break their own “Goldwater Rule” as a patriotic gesture in defense of their nation against Trump and his enablers. Hofstadler writes, “We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.”

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